If you’re familiar with the professional social networking site LinkedIn, you’ve probably heard that members can now add a “Volunteer Experience & Causes” field to their profile. This field can be used to list volunteer positions, causes and organizations. I think this is a great decision, especially for the student population. While non-profit organizations and community programs undoubtedly benefit from volunteerism, the advantages for the volunteers themselves are frequently overlooked. Volunteering is undeniably effective as a means to explore career opportunities, facilitate self-awareness, identify core values, build a network of professional contacts and meet new friends.
While I’ve definitely met and worked with a number of eager student volunteers, I’ve also encountered quite a few students who hesitate, understandably, at committing a chunk of their already busy lives to something that provides no immediate or obvious compensation. If they are going to take time out of their week to do something extra, they would rather spend it at their part-time job – at least there’s a paycheque waiting at the end.
There’s no arguing the point; you’ll make money at a job. But that’s exactly why you will care more about volunteering.
Why? Well, ultimately it boils down to something that social psychologists call cognitive dissonance. I haven’t taken a social psych class in a while (so hopefully I don’t butcher this), but in short, cognitive dissonance is the feeling you get when you hold conflicting beliefs, a feeling that intensifies when your beliefs and behaviour collide. This forces you to do something – such as formulate a new belief – in order to make that uncomfortable feeling go away. Keep in mind that I don’t mean belief in a “spiritual” sense, but rather simply holding something to be true.
The surprising thing about beliefs is that they are much more fluid than anyone is willing to admit. You see, most people will tell you that their behaviour is for the most part determined by their beliefs. They might say, “I gave $5 to that homeless person because I believe in helping people who are worse off than me.” As it turns out, a more accurate way of looking at things would be to say their beliefs are for the most part determined by their behaviour. “I gave $5 to that homeless person. Therefore, I must believe it’s important to help people who are worse off than me.”
Now, what happens when we throw in a conflicting belief? Let’s say you have the same experience described above, but you also think it’s important to save your money because you have precious little. On your walk to campus, you encounter a second homeless person, and presto – you start to experience cognitive dissonance. If you simply walk by, your behaviour is at odds with your belief that you should help out the less fortunate. At the same time, if you give that person some money, your behaviour conflicts with your belief that you need to save money whenever possible.
There are two ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. You can change some aspect of your behaviour until it complies with your beliefs, or change your beliefs until they are in accordance with your behaviour. As it turns out, it’s much easier to change beliefs than behaviour, so that is what most people do.
Now, what does all of this have to do with volunteering?
Easy. If our behaviour largely determines our beliefs, then we’re in a constant state of figuring out what our beliefs really are. In other words, we’re deciding what is important to us. Statistically significant psychological studies have shown that activities performed for little or no monetary compensation are perceived as more important than those performed for a bigger payoff. This is because accepting money for work is a no-brainer – no cognitive dissonance, and thus no need to formulate a new belief or change an existing one. However, if you have to ask yourself why you did something without being compensated for it, knowing that your time is valuable to you, the conclusion is inescapable: the activity was important to you in some way. A new belief is born, and the uncomfortable feeling subsides.
So, if you volunteer, why do you do it? It’s certainly not to pay the bills. It’s because it’s important, much more important than the things you do for money. Science says so. So does LinkedIn.